From the not-all-that-dramatic escape of the six American ‘house-guests’ at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran in January, 1980, to the thrilling chase featured in Argo, the Canadian Caper saga has taken many turns, most of them the product of political dictates. For those of us who took part, the true history has been caught in a hall of mirrors.
In August, 1979, I joined the political section of the Canadian embassy in Tehran just as the Shah’s regime began to collapse. At the beginning, there were thirteen other Canadians; then the numbers began to dwindle as the situation worsened. I started out reporting to Ottawa on the fall of the regime, handling an influx of Canadian (and later U.S.) journalists, and ensuring the safe departure of an increasing flight of Canadian commercial expatriates. A normal life for a young diplomat in an abnormal situation changed pretty drastically on Nov. 4 when the militants went over the wall of the United States embassy, and six U.S. escapees sought shelter with us.
The final escape of our six “houseguests” came as a huge boost to U.S. morale at the time, and American gratitude to Canada seemed without bounds. If anything, the disastrous failure of the U.S. rescue mission (‘Operation Eagle Claw’), and the additional year of captivity suffered by the 53 other US diplomats in Tehran, made the escape seem even more remarkable.
While the CIA’s technical assistance was quietly acknowledged at the time, the full extent of its involvement was shrouded for many years by U.S. security needs. For that reason the Canadian (in particular Ambassador Ken Taylor’s) role was very strongly highlighted, and the CIA’s role suppressed.
In 1997, the wraps came off. The CIA was celebrating its 50th anniversary, and badly needed some good news stories. One of these was the full story of the 1980 Tehran exfiltration as told by its “master of disguise,” Antonio (Tony) Mendez, who had planned and led the U.S. side of the operation. The most intriguing part of Mr. Mendez’s story was the cover he had developed for the six, who posed as the Canadian members of a Hollywood crew scouting an exotic location for a science-fiction movie (this became the subject of the semi-fictional movie Argo). To backstop the cover, Mr. Mendez used his Hollywood contacts to set up a bogus production company and buy the rights to a script “Argo, A Cosmic Conflagration.” The title of Mr. Mendez’s first public account of operation in the CIA’s Annals of Intelligence said it all: “CIA Goes Hollywood: A Classic Case of Deception.” This caused a minor furor at the time, with a few people questioning the many honours bestowed on Ambassador Taylor.
That was unjust, there was and is plenty of credit to go around, but the full extent of Mr. Taylor’s role was not revealed until the 2010 publication of Robert Wright’s thoroughly researched book Our Man in Tehran. The book revealed just how close Canada-U.S. co-operation had been, particularly the role Mr. Taylor and the late Sergeant James Edward had played in helping the U.S. restore its intelligence network in Iran.
In 2007, an article How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran appeared in Wired Magazine. It played up the Hollywood connection, and almost ignored Canada’s role. As intended by its author, Hollywood took the bait and in October, 2012, the movie Argo directed by and starring Ben Affleck appeared. The Argo operation had come full circle.
There’s no need to dwell upon the degree to which ‘Argo’ has left bruised feelings in Canada, (and in the U.K. and New Zealand, whose embassies were gratuitously accused of denying sanctuary to the fugitive Americans). In fact, both embassies – particularly New Zealand’s – made real contributions to the operation’s success.
Argo is a great flick, full of gripping action, mixed with some nice humour at both Washington and Hollywood’s expense. With some exaggeration, it captures the look and feel of Tehran in January, 1980. But it does greatly telescope events, and Hollywood being Hollywood, the U.S. role is emphasized and the Canadian’s roles fade into the backdrop. Key characters, especially the late John Sheardown, and his wife Zena who sheltered four of the ‘houseguests’ for almost three months, are written out of the script.
The actual exfiltration (although the risks to the participants were very real) offered no real drama. Yes, there were anxious moments, including Tony Mendez oversleeping on the morning of the exfiltration, to the dismay of my New Zealand colleague who was picking him up. That those highly dramatic scenes in the film, culminating in the car chase, are total fiction is really just as well. If life had paralleled art, those of us who closed the Canadian embassy later the same day would have found ourselves in very deep trouble.
As usual, with both Hollywood plots and CIA scenarios, there are layers on layers, and motives behind motives. The Argo storyline was one surface. There were other surfaces for those who were meant to see them.
Thirty-three years later, the exfiltration of six U.S. diplomats from Iran should be a footnote to the continuing saga of Iran’s estrangement from the the global community, which still complicates finding any solutions in Afghanistan or Syria. It was important at the time because the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and ensuing hostage crisis had left the United States looking helpless and the international community unable or unwilling to help. And a really good story is always remembered longer than any history.
Roger Lucy, CM, was Political First Secretary of the Canadian Embassy in Tehran during the US hostage crisis of 1979-1980. He received the Order of Canada for his role in the escape, and retired from the foreign service in 2003. He now lives in Ottawa, and will describe his experiences in the Canadian Caper at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto on June 20. Visit www.rcmi.org for event details.